In a lengthy presentation at City Hall Tuesday, Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña delivered a persuasive appeal to council members for more robust funding to address his department's dire needs, namely its aging fleet of fire engines and its severe lack of high-water vehicles and rescue boats.
Speaking before the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, Peña laid out a long-term plan to start getting the city in the habit of replacing and maintaining the Houston Fire Department fleet on an annual basis rather than in random, infrequent spurts. With just over one-quarter of the fire engines and nearly half of the ambulances at or over the replacement age, that leaves HFD often relying on its also-aging reserve fleet, given that many of its trucks are prone to breaking down. Which in turn results in costly repairs and slower response times when frontline trucks are removed from the streets — resulting in savings for no one.
"Our critical areas are a reliable fleet and reliable equipment in the right amount to address the anticipated risk in this community, and a well-trained and developed personnel. And that all has to come together," Peña said. "When we don’t have that — when we’re missing one of those critical pieces — the department begins to erode. And from my estimation, we are eroding as far as our skill set and we are eroding as far as our fleet. This is the point where we have to make a decision about what we want our fire department to do, and what we’re willing to fund."
Peña's long-term plan calls for an annual $10.9 million investment in 16 new ambulances, nine new fire engines and nine new trucks with ladders and towers attached, every year. And following widespread criticism of his decision not to call in roughly three-quarters of the fire department during the worst of Hurricane Harvey, Peña is now calling for more than doubling the department's high-water rescue artillery.
Peña has reasoned that he couldn't call in additional firefighters for rescues during Harvey — only about 850 of the 4,000 HFD staff were officially on duty — because there simply weren't enough boats or high-water vehicles for them to staff. For a department that, in Peña's words, views itself as the chief agency in charge of rescuing people during major flooding events, the numbers can be startling: The fire department has only six rescue boats, ten evacuation boats and a single high-water rescue vehicle, leaving it unequipped to handle a flood even half Harvey's size, Peña said.
Before this summer — and in fact just a few days before Harvey hit — the fire department didn't even have any high-water rescue vehicles. It wasn't until Councilwoman Brenda Stardig, chair of the safety committee, purchased one of the vehicles with her own district funds that city firefighters had one in stock.
To prepare the department to handle simply an expected flooding event in Bayou City, let alone an extraordinary one, Peña wants ten more rescue boats, 20 more evacuation boats and eight more high-water vehicles, costing the city approximately $1.7 million. At least two council members, Dave Martin and Dwight Boykins, said they plan to either copy or expand Stardig's idea to simply use district funds to buy the comparatively inexpensive boats and high-water vehicles, costing between $21,000 and $82,000, compared to half a million bucks for a fire engine.
But then there's the matter of training.
The other reason Peña said he didn't call in more firefighters during Harvey is because the overwhelming majority of them are not trained in swift-water rescues or navigation. Despite the fire department's repeated requests for expanding the budget to allow for more training, only 196 firefighters are trained to respond to major flooding events like Harvey. The numbers weren't much different during the Memorial Day floods two years ago, when HFD was also criticized for its lack of training after one of its boats capsized while it was manned by untrained rescuers, and three civilians died. To finally start digging the department out of that hole, Peña wants an additional 580 firefighters trained in swift-water rescue, costing approximately $330,000.
So where's all this money coming from?
Currently, only about $5 million per year for the next five years is budgeted for HFD fleet replacements — but since that's just half of what's needed annually, Peña said after the presentation that the upcoming bond referendum could be another huge source. Of the $495 million in bond money the city is asking voters to approve in the November 7 election, $54 million would be allocated to fire department fleet replacement needs, giving the department $10.8 million per year for the next five years.
It's nearly exactly what HFD would need to get moving on its long-term fleet replacement plan — if approved at the ballot box.
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But Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton stressed that what Peña presented Tuesday shouldn't be seen as any sort of one-time fix, that it's still only what's needed just to get the department up to par.
"Just dealing with the fleet issues, this is something that needed to happen yesterday," he said. "Not only does there have to be a focus on where we are now in order to rebuild, but this is only going to get exponentially worse, as we've seen over the years. So the time to act is now."
Peña's request for greater financial commitment from the city comes amid rising tensions between Mayor Sylvester Turner and firefighters, particularly their union, after a series of decisions or comments made by Turner that angered the rank and file. Namely: Turner has said the city simply doesn't have it in its budget to get the firefighters everything they want, such as pay raises or pay parity with police, equipment and fleet upgrades and increased benefits. The Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday that the feud reached new heights after at least two firefighters refused to even shake the mayor's hand at a Rockets game, leading Turner to publicly criticize them and call for disciplinary action.
He wasn't present during Peña's presentation Tuesday.